Updated: Jun 20
Sourcing images for use alongside your writing can be a challenge. The common first thought is often to scour Pinterest or Google for the perfect reference... but this can net you some copyright issues if you're not careful. And those get very sticky.
Though Pinterest is AMAZING for putting mood boards together... different topic!
Another consideration, currently, is the fact that AI is taking over the visual world. Given the ethical debates and sensitive nature of the topic, many worldbuilders are opting to avoid using it to illustrate their worlds.
I had a good run with Midjourney, myself, but even I'm falling off the bandwagon hard, given how complex the subject really is. So... what other options are there?
10 Free Image Resources on the Web
We live in an amazing age where images litter the internet, but not all of them are actually free to use. Artwork you find on Google typically belongs to someone else, and even the stock images typically require a paid license to acquire and utilize.
Lucky for us, there are resources available which provide images that actually are completely free to use! These can be lifesavers for those who need images and references, especially for commercial use.
Now, free to use doesn't simply mean take the images and run; different images on different platforms will have licensing information and attribution guidelines attached to them. Even if they are 100% free to use, you may not be able to modify or sell the images, and may be required to provide attribution to the images, depending on the license. Read through these! Licensing and copyright are no joke!
(And if you're using them on WorldAnvil, you will be required to credit the images regardless!)
"Wikimedia Commons a collection of 93,863,818 freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute."
This site is an absolute visual goldmine, featuring photographs, artwork, and other works that are free to use! Many of these works are in the Public Domain, or are usable under Creative Commons, and there are simply so many to look though.
With the sheer amount of content, the site itself could be a little intimidating to search through, but the category system means you can search for just about any subject you need, and something will certainly pop up for you.
If you're a fan of Wikipedia rabbit-holes, you've met your image-based counterpart.
"The world’s best collection of public domain art and design resources. Collated and digitally enhanced from international museums and our own original collection of artworks. We are making these available to you to use as you like with a CC0 license."
Another platform with the goal of providing high-quality, public domain images for open access! All files from the public domain collection are free, with unlimited downloads, though you need to make an account to download your files.
Rawpixel also offers a "free" collection (different from the public domain collection), which you can download five images from, per day, with a free account. With a paid account, you can download an unlimited number of these and use them freely for commercial purposes (just be sure to verify what is and is not permitted per their license agreements).
"Europeana empowers the cultural heritage sector in its digital transformation. We develop expertise, tools and policies to embrace digital change and encourage partnerships that foster innovation."
Europe's cultural heritage is in your hands with this resource, where you can search for photographs, artworks, and designs compiled by the European Union and provided for free download and use.
Not all of the images on the site are free, but there are search options that allow you to filter for the freely reusable, public domain images. I love all of the technical drawings that you can find here! Great reference for worldbuilding content!
Museums and Art Institutions
National Gallery of Art
"The National Gallery of Art has an open access policy for images of works of art in our permanent collection which the Gallery believes to be in the public domain. Images of these works are available for download free of charge for any use, whether commercial or non-commercial."
I couldn't mention Wikimedia without mentioning the National Gallery of Art as well, as they've been contributing images to the giant database themselves! The NGA database is full of artworks which are now in the public domain and, per their own description, are free of charge for commercial or non-commercial use.
This is the perfect resource for finding artworks to use in decorating your worldbuilding if you're not looking to use photos. I totally get that — I'm an artsy kind of person myself, so I tend to avoid using photographs whenever art is an option instead.
Smithsonian Open Access
"Welcome to Smithsonian Open Access, where you can download, share, and reuse millions of the Smithsonian’s images—right now, without asking. With new platforms and tools, you have easier access to more than 4.5 million 2D and 3D digital items from our collections—with many more to come."
Museums offer a lot of great visual material, and the Smithsonian happens to be offering a lot of that material for free! With images and more from over 20 museums, libraries, research centers, and more, there is SO much to be found here.
These images are also offered with a Creative Commons Zero license... making them completely free to use for anything, no attribution required.
More Museums & Galleries with Open Access
Several galleries have begun offering open access images that are free to download and use. See the list below for a few that I was able to find!
The Metropolitan Museum of Art "Data about The Met collection, including over 492,000 images of public-domain artworks, available for free and unrestricted use."
Los Angeles County Museum of Art "LACMA is the largest art museum in the western United States, with a collection of nearly 149,000 objects that illuminate 6,000 years of artistic expression across the globe."
Art Institute of Chicago "Explore thousands of artworks in the museum’s collection—from our renowned icons to lesser-known works from every corner of the globe—as well as our books, writings, reference materials, and other resources."
Royalty Free Images
"The best free stock photos, royalty free images & videos shared by creators."
Maybe you DO want photographic images to use! If that's the case, then Pexels can be a fantastic resource for everything from portraits to landscapes. Search up what you're looking for, and browse for the perfect photos for your project.
The images you can find here are great, high quality, and are free to use, with no attribution required! Keep them as they are, or edit them into something new.
The internet’s source for visuals. Powered by creators everywhere.
Another free image source, Unsplash is very similar to the resource previously mentioned. Whenever I'm searching for photos for a project, I typically jump between the two depending on what I need. If one doesn't have something for me, the other typically will!
Just like Pexels, the images you find here are completely free to use for personal and commercial use. Just be mindful that there is now Unsplash+, which makes certain images premium. These are easy enough to avoid; just keep an eye out for the little "Unsplash+" tag in the corner of these images.
Bonus inspiration: A friend from the WorldAnvil community, TJ Trewin, actually has several collections on Unsplash for the different article templates! Have a look through them for a stream of visual inspiration, carefully curated by one of the finest worldbuilders I know!
Check out his blog for even more tips and advice for worldbuilders!
There are... SO many other resources out there where you can find free images. The ones I've shared here are the ones I'm most familiar with, but I know I could dig up more and more as I go.
Let me know if you have any additions you would make to this list, or if you'd like ANOTHER list in the future! We can start compiling more and more resources for you creative people who need images for your projects.
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Cheers, and happy worldbuilding!